Absolute music

Absolute music (sometimes abstract music) is a term used to describe music that is not explicitly "about" anything, non-representational or non-objective. In contrast with program music, absolute music has no references to stories or images or any other kind of extramusical idea.

A related idea (from 19th c. composers, but often contested) considers 'Absolute' as a form of divinity itself which could be evoked by music.

The aesthetic ideas underlying the absolute music debate relate to Kant's aesthetic disinterestedness from his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, and has led to numerous arguments among musicians, music historians and critics, including a famous war of words between greatest composers such as Brahms and Wagner.

The Spiritualist debate

A group of early Romantics comprising of Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Jean Paul Richter and E.T.A. Hoffmann gave rise to the idea of what can be labeled as spiritual absolutism. In this respect, instrumental music transcends other arts and languages to become the discourse of a ‘higher realm’ — propagated greatly in Hoffmann’s famous review of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, published in 1810. These protagonists believed that music could be more emotionally powerful and stimulating without words. According to Richter, music would eventually ‘outlast’ the word.

“Music is the echo from a transcendent harmonious world; it is the sigh of the angel within us. When the word is silent… and when our mute hearts lie only behind the ribcage of our chest, then it is only through music that men call to each other in their dungeons, and write their distant sighs in their wilderness.” — Jean Paul Richter

As most religions prepare mankind for a Heaven or after-life of some description, instrumental music — according to the early Romantics — alludes to a similar state of spirituality, often referred to as ‘Utopia’.

The Formalist debate

‘Formalism’ is the concept of ‘music for music’s sake’ and refers only to instrumental music without words. In this respect, music has no meaning at all and is enjoyed by appreciation of its ‘formal’ structure and technical construction. The 19th century music critic Eduard Hanslick argued that music could be enjoyed as pure sound and form, that it needed no connotation of extra-musical elements to warrant its existence. In fact, these extra-musical ideas detracted from the beauty of the music. The 'Absolute', in this case, is the ‘purity’ of the art.

“Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.” — Eduard Hanslick

Formalism therefore rejected genres such as opera, song and tone poems as they conveyed explicit meanings or programmatic imagery. Symphonic forms were considered more aesthetically pure. (The choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as well as the programmatic Sixth Symphony, became problematic to formalist critics who had championed the composer as a pioneer of the ‘Absolute’, especially with the late quartets).

Carl Dahlhaus describes absolute music as music without a "concept, object, and purpose".

Opposition to instrumental music

The majority of opposition to the idea of instrumental music being ‘absolute’ came from Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. It seemed ludicrous to these men that art could exist without meaning, for then it had no right to exist.

“Art for art sake [is about as purposeful] as a worm chewing its own tail.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

“Instrumental music is not strictly art at all.” — Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Wagner considered the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to be the proof that music works better with words, famously saying:

“Where music can go no further, there comes the word… the word stands higher than the tone.” — Richard Wagner

Contemporary views

Today, the debate continues over whether music has meaning or not. However, most contemporary views, reflecting ideas emerging from views of subjectivity in linguistic meaning arising in Cognitive Linguistics, as well as Kuhn's work on cultural biases in science and other ideas on meaning and aesthetics (e.g. Wittgenstein) on cultural constructions in thought and language), appear to be moving towards a consensus that music provides at least some signification or meaning, in terms of which it is understood. The decay of spiritualism in the 21st century has also led to a weakening of the absolutist position.

Some scholars such as Berthold Hoeckner feel that the very idea of absolute music was culturally generated; it was fostered by some German composers in an attempt to make it universally accepted.

“The absoluteness of absolute music has never been an obstacle, but is the very condition of its meaning.” — Berthold Hoeckner

The cultural bases of musical understanding have been highlighted in Philip Bohlman's work, who considers music as a form of cultural communication:

There are those who believe that music represents nothing other than itself. I argue that we are constantly giving it new and different abilities to represent who we are.
Bohlman has gone on to argue that the use of music, e.g. among the Jewish diaspora, was in fact a form of identity building.

Susan McClary has critiqued the notion of ‘absolute music’, arguing that all music, whether explicitly programmatic or not, contains implicit programs that reflect the tastes, politics, aesthetic philosophies and social attitudes of the composer and their historical situation. Such scholars would argue that classical music is rarely about ‘nothing’, but reflects aesthetic tastes that are themselves influenced by culture, politics and philosophy. Composers are often bound up in a web of tradition and influence, in which they strive to consciously situate themselves in relation to other composers and styles. Lawrence Kramer, on the other hand, believes music has no means to reserve a “specific layer or pocket for meaning. Once it has been brought into sustainable connection with a structure of prejudgment, music simply becomes meaningful.”

Music which appears to demand an interpretation, but is abstract enough to warrant objectivity (e.g. Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony), is what Lydia Goehr refers to as ‘double-sided autonomy.’ This happens when the formalist properties of music became attractive to composers because, having ‘no meaning to speak of’, music could be used to envision an alternative cultural and/or political order, while escaping the scrutiny of the censor (particularly common in Shostakovich, most notably the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies).

Absolute music and linguistic meaning

On the topic of musical meaning, Wittgenstein, at several points in his late diary Culture and Value, ascribes meaning to music, for instance, that in the finale, a conclusion is being ‘drawn’, e.g.:

“[one] can point to particular places in a tune by Schubert and say: look, that is the point of the tune, this is where the thought comes to a head.” (p.47)

Recently, Jerrold Levinson has drawn extensively on Wittgenstein to comment, in the Journal of Music and Meaning:

Intelligible music stands to literal thinking in precisely the same relation as does intelligible verbal discourse. If that relation be not exemplification but instead, say, expression, then music and language are, at any rate, in the same, and quite comfortable, boat.

See also


Further reading

  • Chua, Daniel Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • Cook, Nicholas Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1998)
  • Dahlhaus, Carl The Idea of Absolute Music trans. by Roger Lustig (Chicago/London 1989; orig. Kassel, 1978)
  • Goehr, Lydia The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992)
  • Hoffman's Review of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
  • Kivy, Peter ‘Absolute Music’ and the ‘New Musicology’ in Musicology and Sister Disciplines. Past, Present, Future. Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of the International Musicological Society, London 1997 ed. D. Greer, I. Rumbold and J. King (Oxford, 2000)
  • Kramer, Lawrence Subjectivity Rampant! Music, Hermeneutics, and History in The Cultural Study of Music. A Critical Introduction ed. M. Clayton, T. Herbert and R. Middleton (New York and London, 2003)
  • Scruton, Roger. "Absolute music." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.
  • Williams, Alastair Constructing Musicology (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., Aldershot, Hampshire, 2001)
  • Wolff, Janet The ideology of autonomous art, in: Music and Society in The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception ed. R. Leppert and S. McClary (Cambridge, 1987)

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